Wow. Peter Hessler, one of my all time favorite authors, has won a McArthur genius award. Every year I get really excited when these awards are announced. I love the idea that a person could be doing his or her work, perhaps getting lots of recognition, perhaps not, and out of the blue someone calls and says, “We love what you’re doing. Here’s some money to keep doing it.” And each year, I hear about some amazing musician or poet or scientist whose work I don’t know. But I do know about Peter Hessler.
Many of you know that in recent years I’ve been learning and working in China. That started after I received tenure several years ago. I’ve since learned that a “post-tenure slump” is common in academia and that it represents a real threat to productivity. Some people seem to fight their way through it and all the interesting things that are supposed to come with tenure proceed – work going in new directions, great teaching, etc. However, for some the result is stagnation – not knowing where to go when the pressure cooker of being an assistant professor without tenure disappears. But, when I received tenure, I did not realize that this was a “normal” phenomenon. Although I kept working hard, on some level my heart was not in it and that was not a feeling I could see living with for very long. So I made a decision to start walking through whatever doors happened to open to me that year. And one of doors that opened was China. But I walked through it with great trepidation. We were supposed to be teaching students in the course of a summer abroad experience. How could I possibly presume to teach about some place that I truly knew nothing about? I racked my brain to think what I learned in high school world history or the foreign policy class I took in college – nothing had been retained! So I started from scratch four months before we left and thankfully came upon Peter Hessler. River Town, Oracle Bones, and most recently, Country Driving. I was reading then, and have since read, many books about China – many of which I’ve really liked and from which I’ve learned much. But only Peter Hessler’s work taught me how to teach American students in China. Because his writing is about a place and about himself and how in learning about a place and it’s people, he learns about his own “place” and his own personhood.
When he wrote his first book, River Town, the Three Gorges Dam was not yet constructed. All over the world, there was controversy about the dam – its environmental impact, the consequences for those who would have to move because their homes would be flooded, and Hessler clearly loves the natural world. His concerns mirrored everyone else’s. Yet, while living on the Yangtze his view of the issue enlarged. Here’s an excerpt:
...There were days I stood on my balcony and felt a touch of sadness as I looked at the Yangtze because I knew its days as a rushing river were numbered. But there were many other days when the smog was so thick that I couldn’t see the river at all.
I also gained a new perspective on this issue during the winter, when there were periodic power cuts to conserve electricity. My apartment had only electric heating, and sometimes these blackouts lasted for hours–long, cold hours, the dark apartment growing steadily more uncomfortable until my breath was white in the candlelight. I found that during these periods I didn’t think too much about whether Fuling’s new dike would hold, or if the immigrants would be well taken care of, or whether the White Crane Ridge would be adequately protected. What I thought about was getting warm. Cold was like hunger; it had a way of simplifying everything. [pg. 115]
Notice that I said that his view enlarged – not changed. He did not give up his concern for historic preservation, the environment, or the well-being of residents. He added to his concerns. Many people in China at that time did not have access to something we in the U.S. do: as much electricity as we are willing to pay for whenever we want it. What Hessler taught so beautifully through his own journey was, that if there were to be alternatives to the Three Gorges Dam, they would have to address all of these concerns not just one group or another’s particular issue. And the transferability of that lesson to so many of the problems that our social work students must address is obvious. Just yesterday, I was using another amazing book in my class on social work in health care. The book, The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, is an exploration of a clash between the culture of Western Medicine and a Hmong community that results in misunderstanding and unnecessary suffering. In this situation, as in so many, choosing one side’s view of a situation without incorporating the view of the other creates only winners and losers – not solutions.
So, if you haven’t read Peter Hessler, read him. He writes about China but, at the core, he writes about compassion for ourselves and others as we navigate waters we have yet to chart. And congratulations to him. I’m so glad he can keep doing what he does so well.